Perambulatory Christmas Books, part 9
BY J. C.
Perambulatory Christmas Books, 5th series, Part IX. Charity shops once had the reputation among book hounds as a place to sniff out a genial bargain. Then along came Oxfam Books, the charity’s dedicated bibliographical arm. A dealer in Salisbury accused Oxfam of being predatory, undermining secondhand shops by opening up nearby. We heard the same complaint made by dealers on our perambulatory circuit, although one, Sebastian Sandys of LXV Books of Bethnal Green, said he would welcome Oxfam, believing it would promote the area as a bookish quarter.
Our job is not to have opinions, but to find a neglected work by an established author, for about £5, to banish Christmas giftbook blues. We do not seek cut-price collectibles; all our purchases are intended to be read.
The largest Oxfam Books we know is in Marylebone, the smallest in Balham, with Turnham Green in between. They have in common a certain soullessness. Don’t expect tea (Walden Books), Chopin improvisations (Archive Bookstore), unworldly erudition (The Flask) or even an argument. We find it hard to think of a used bookshop in London or Edinburgh that lacks character; equally, of an Oxfam Books that possesses any. That said, we have found enough there to keep the spectre of that second Sweetheart Stout at bay, as darkness falls. There is also the humble consolation of putting food in a hungry belly.
In Oxfam, Marylebone, we picked up The Transgressor (Le Malfaiteur) by Julian Green. Born in France to American parents, Green (1900–98) wrote some fifty books. At the time of The Transgressor (1958), several had been translated into English. Yet it is fair to say that he is unread here now. The jacket quotes the TLS: “A minor masterpiece”. The name of Balzac is invoked. “No one since Alain-Fournier . . .”. What happened? One answer is that English readers fell out of love with French literature round about 1970; Green ceased being translated at the same time. Another reply might hold that his novels are too full of the musk of antique shops and Catholic churches. Sexually ambiguous figures, neither out nor in, evince too much frustration, not enough perversity. The transgressors of The Transgressor have nothing in common with the horribly attractive monsters of Les Enfants terribles, for example.
Still, we are mildly better educated than we were before. It cost £4 to be so, and we got a handsome hardback in dust jacket as a prize for turning up. Curiously, the author’s first name, usually “Julien”, is repeatedly “Julian” here.